The School Board's Failure Of Nerve


April 04, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

Without a doubt, the Howard County Board of Education has done an extreme disservice to the school system by half-stepping through the recent redistricting of Wilde Lake and Centennial high schools.

Having failed to adopt the redistricting plan that would have created the best socio-economic balance at Wilde Lake, the board must now face questions about its real commitment to diversity and equity in county schools.

Diversity in particular has been talked about as a major thrust within the system this year. Officials were forced to push the matter to the front burner after a spate of racially charged incidents involving county students a year ago.

Though equity is less talked about, issues of diversity and equity clearly go hand in hand.

So it is easy to understand why some residents may have had their confidence in the school system shaken by recent events.

The Wilde Lake and Centennial situation is emblematic of the system's inability to find appropriate and lasting solutions to the imbalance -- both racially and in terms of resources -- found in county schools.

The group most hurt by the system's shortfall has been African-American students. While low academic achievement is not unique to the black community, test scores indicate that the problem is proportionally more acute among minority students.

This situation has confounded school officials, most of all because it appears to fly in the face of assumptions made about the impact of family background and income on achievement. Howard County ranks no less than third nationally in the percentage of black middle-class families, so why is the gap in test scores so wide?

To his credit, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey has mounted an effort to answer the question of black student achievement, charging his top administrators and principals with the task of finding a solution.

At the moment, their focus has turned to peer-group pressure as a factor. Some experts have speculated that there is a strong perception among African-American students that excelling in school "is a white thing" that is best avoided, Mr. Hickey said.

It's a theory that has merit.

What confounds me is why the school system chose to miss an opportunity to have real impact on one of its high schools by infusing it with a large number of high achievers and thereby changing the atmosphere of the school and lessening the influence of peer pressure.

My only conclusion is that it lacked the guts to do so.

That does not mean that other efforts should not be made, or that the board's recent decision means that all is lost.

Mr. Hickey insists that once a program is developed, he would like to see Wilde Lake used as a model for how African-American students' test scores can be improved. Having failed the school once, this seems the least that education officials can do now.

If it is found that the achievement of black students can be raised if greater resources are applied in certain schools, than that certainly is one route. Another solution may be to use the redistricting process to foster diversity throughout the system, leveling the playing field between schools.

If the added task of teaching disadvantaged students were more equitably distributed, teachers might have more time to devote to students who are falling behind.

I would like to think that school officials are prepared to face this matter squarely. Addressing the problem will require a large measure of courage. Issues as sensitive as these will demand that a consensus be created in the community about what should be done.

Somehow, given their recent performance, board members don't appear to be up to that task.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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